The Crucible — Reviewed

The Crucible, Lantern Theatre, Liverpool

Joseph Viney finds that Milller’s 1953 play has as much to say about a world of growing religious fundamentalism and ‘trial by media’ as it does the McCarthy witch trials era…

Accusations of anti-intellectualism, pursuit of ‘the other’ and deep mistrust of those who go against the grain are common themes of humanity’s short and torrid existence. But those who are filled by a desire to commit such actions tend not to be ‘stupid’, as it were, but instead learned men and women; professionals with a grudge.

Consider the modern and most notable appropriations of witch-hunts: Joseph McCarthy’s House of UnAmerican Activities and the pre-war actions of the Nazis and their hideous cousins the SA and the SS. These weren’t groups striking out in darkness; they were scores of people aiming for sensitive and easy targets, willing to do anything to swing public opinion in their own favour. Such things are easily provoked and can occur at any time.

It was the processes of that snivelling wretch McCarthy and his “better dead than red” minions that provided the basis of Arthur Miller’s timeless play, The Crucible (1953). Its retelling of the well-chronicled but no less almost-unbelievable Salem witch trials of 1692 was a sharp and biting allegory of the U.S. government’s perverse attempts to label whoever they wanted to as criminals, with no discernible crimes having been committed.

Miller himself was questioned by the committee in 1956 and as a consequence of his refusal to hand over names (i.e. drop people in it for no reason other than to save his own hide. He had principles, people!) was convicted of “contempt of Congress”.

It is this long shadow of the mis-application of justice that hangs heavy on this latest production of The Crucible by Liverpool Network Theatre Group at Lantern Theatre (Blundell Street).

The cramped confines of the venue, resembling the hold of an old ship, serve as a fantastic accompaniment to some powerful performances and the inherent claustrophobia of the text, as all of the characters are stifled by conceived social norms, the oppression of their religion and the rabid dangers of suspicion, accusation and counter-accusation.

“Lee Burnitt, as the sly, paranoid, fevered and ultimately weak-willed Reverend Parris, hooks the audience the moment the lights go up”

The production is propelled by the studious application of the craft by a fresh cast. Lee Burnitt, as the sly, paranoid, fevered and ultimately weak-willed Reverend Parris, hooks the audience the moment the lights go up. His booming voice, stage presence and marshalling of the tired and half-crazed residents of Salem is a remarkable feat in itself; going some way to establish his and others’ later intentions.

Indeed, it’s within these early stages that the cast laid their strong claims to our attention. Holly Milne dazzles as Abigail Williams, the shrill, devious harridan whose thirst for revenge on any number of people acts as the deadly catalyst for events in Salem. Mike Sanders, as the tortured and grieving Thomas Putnam, regularly strikes out with strong verbal and physical proclamations, embodying the crooked spirit of a town that, like its children, is withering and dying on the vine.

It is the production’s central performances that are its strongest, and act as the black heart that pumps the blood throughout the body of the play.

Darren Jones and Angela Millett, as John and Elizabeth Proctor, are both revelations. Their chemistry on stage is a neat summation of the potted history and dormant yet still strong love that remains the bedrock of their marriage. It is John’s one past transgression, his sole moment of weakness in a life of back-breaking labour that comes back to haunt the pair.

The play’s second and final act, taking place in a courtroom and the very epitome of a ragged show-trial, has a sold-out audience on tenterhooks: small periods of dramatic silence are punctuated by recriminations, sorrow and the steadfast refusal to simply consider the humanitarian and wholly logical arguments presented.

The Crucible asks you to consider and ruminate upon the meaning of principles, and how far individuals should go to maintain their own, even in the face of insurmountable opposition, fear and, quite frankly, rampant stupidity.

Group hysteria, deadly mistakes and the act of saving one’s own skin by throwing once trusted compatriots to the lions are elements as old as the societies that have conspired to harbour them.

The Crucible, by virtue of this wonderful and at times frightening production, doesn’t simply make you scoff at the past and be glad it isn’t you. In a world of growing religious fundamentalism and ‘trial by media’, it’s a greasy window into a future that is becoming all too real.

Joseph Viney

The Crucible shows at The Lantern Theatre, Liverpool, today at 1.30pm and 7.30pm — see here for tickets and more info

Posted on 22/03/2014 by thedoublenegative